Beyond Personalization, Overcoming Bias in Recommender Systems

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Recommender systems are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, providing personalized recommendations on social media, e-commerce platforms, and streaming services. These systems aim to simplify our decision-making by offering products, services, and content tailored to our interests and preferences. However, despite their impressive capabilities, recommender systems are not immune to flaws, and there are concerns about their fairness, particularly in their potential to affect marginalized groups.

This article will delve into the perception of fairness in recommender systems, examining the obstacles to achieving it, and exploring the strategies to mitigate these obstacles.

What is fairness in recommender systems

Under the context of recommender systems, fairness refers to the degree to which the recommendations generated by the system are free from bias and do not favor or discriminate against particular groups of users.

Fairness can be evaluated from different perspectives, including individual fairness, group fairness, and algorithmic fairness.

  • Individual fairness is based on the idea that similar users should receive similar recommendations. This requires that the system does not recommend vastly different items to users with similar preferences, or that it does not recommend the same item to one user while omitting it from another user with similar tastes.
  • Group fairness, requires that the system’s recommendations are distributed fairly among different groups of users, regardless of their demographic characteristics such as age, gender, race, or location1. For instance, a fair recommender system should not exclusively recommend products to one gender over another.
  • Algorithmic fairness concerns the fairness of the underlying algorithms and data used to make recommendations. This ensures that the recommendations generated by the system do not perpetuate existing biases or discrimination. For example, if a movie recommendation system disproportionately recommends films by male directors, then the system may be perpetuating a gender bias2.

Evaluating and achieving fairness in recommender systems is a complex and ongoing challenge, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring fairness. However, by understanding and addressing the different perspectives of fairness, we can design and implement recommender systems that are more equitable and unbiased for all users.

Challenges in achieving fairness in recommender systems

In this section, I will cover some of the primary fairness issues that come up when building a recommender system.

Data Bias

Achieving fairness in recommender systems is a challenging task, as there are numerous obstacles that need to be overcome. One of the most significant obstacles is data biases3, which can result in unfair and discriminatory recommendations. Recommender systems are trained on historical user data, which may contain biases and stereotypes. These biases can be reflected in the recommendations generated by the system, perpetuating existing inequalities.

For example, if a movie recommendation system only recommends films by a specific race or ethnicity, it may reinforce existing biases and limit diversity in film choices. To address this challenge, data preprocessing techniques can be used to remove or mitigate the effects of biases. Oversampling underrepresented groups, reweighting the data, or using techniques such as adversarial debiasing can help balance the data and reduce the impact of biases.

Lack of Diversity

Another obstacle for achieving fairness in recommender systems is the lack of diversity in recommendations. Recommender systems can suffer from a lack of diversity, as they may recommend similar items to users with similar tastes, which can create filter bubbles and limit users’ exposure to new and diverse content. This can have implications for underrepresented groups, as their interests and preferences may not be reflected in the recommendations they receive.

To address this challenge, various techniques can be used to promote diversity, such as incorporating diversity metrics into the recommendation process or providing users with serendipitous recommendations that introduce them to new content. For example, a music recommendation system can use diversity metrics to recommend music that is less popular but aligns with a user’s tastes.

Cold Start Problem

Recommender systems may struggle to provide personalized recommendations to new users who have little to no historical data. This can put these users at a disadvantage compared to users with established profiles and more data for the system to work with. This is known as the cold start problem.

One way to address this challenge is to use content-based recommendations that leverage the features of items to make recommendations, rather than relying solely on historical user data. For example, a music recommendation system can use audio features like tempo, key, and genre to recommend songs to users who have not yet established their preferences.

Privacy Concerns

Recommender systems require access to users’ personal data, such as their browsing history, purchase history, or location, to make recommendations. This can raise privacy concerns and undermine user trust in the system. To address this challenge, privacy-preserving techniques such as differential privacy can be used to protect users’ data while still providing accurate recommendations. For example, a recommendation system can use differential privacy to add random noise to the data before processing it, making it difficult for a potential attacker to identify specific users’ data while still maintaining the accuracy of the recommendations. Additionally, recommender systems can be transparent about their data collection practices and offer users the ability to opt out of data collection or delete their data at any time.

Approaches to achieving fairness in recommender systems

Despite these challenges, there are several approaches to achieve fairness in recommender systems. Some of these approaches will be covered in the following section.

Algorithmic modifications

One approach to achieving fairness in recommender systems is to modify the algorithms used by the system to ensure fairness. For example, one could modify the objective function to explicitly include fairness constraints or incorporate diversity metrics into the recommendation process.

This function first calculates user and item similarity matrices using cosine similarity. Then, it computes the fairness-corrected item similarity matrix by blending the original item similarity matrix with an identity matrix, guided by the fairness constraint parameter. Finally, it calculates recommendations using the fair item similarity matrix.

User feedback

User feedback is a crucial aspect of building fair recommender systems. User feedback can help the system learn from its mistakes and improve its recommendations over time. Explicit feedback, where users rate or provide feedback on the recommendations they receive, can be particularly helpful in identifying and addressing biases in the system.

To incorporate user feedback into the recommendation process, several techniques can be used, such as:

  1. Collaborative filtering: This involves using user feedback to compute similarity scores between users and items. The similarity scores can then be used to generate recommendations for new users. Using the movie recommender system as an example, we have a user-item matrix containing the user’s rating to a given movie. In the example below, User_A gives Movie_1 a rating of 4. For any new user, we can find a similar user in the existing user-item matrix, and bootstrap a rating the new user might give to a movie.

User-Item Matrix




















New User

3 ?



To operationalize this in python:

  1. Active learning: This involves using user feedback to iteratively refine the recommendation model. The system starts with a simple model and asks users for feedback on the recommendations. The feedback is used to improve the model, and the process is repeated until the model reaches a satisfactory level of accuracy. For example, a music recommendation system can use active learning to improve the accuracy of its recommendations by asking users for feedback on the recommended songs.


Transparency and accountability are critical for promoting fairness in recommender systems. By providing users with more information about how the system works, including the algorithms used and the data sources, and allowing users to opt out of certain types of recommendations, we can ensure that users are more informed about the recommendations they receive and have more control over their experience.

To promote transparency and accountability in recommender systems, several techniques can be used, such as:

  1. Explainability: This involves providing users with explanations for the recommendations they receive. For example, a movie recommendation system can provide users with information on how the recommended movies are related to the user’s viewing history or preferences.

  1. Opt-out options: This involves providing users with the ability to opt out of certain types of recommendations. For example, a music recommendation system can provide users with the ability to opt out of recommendations based on their listening history.

Hybrid Recommendations

This involves combining different recommendation techniques such as content-based, collaborative filtering, or knowledge-based recommendations to provide more accurate and diverse recommendations. The system can use user feedback to adapt the weightings of each technique to improve the accuracy of recommendations for individual users. For example, an e-commerce recommendation system can use a hybrid approach to recommend products based on a combination of user preferences and the popularity of the products.


Recommender systems have the potential to provide personalized and relevant recommendations to users, but they also raise concerns about fairness and discrimination. Achieving fairness in recommender systems is a complex and ongoing challenge that requires a multi-disciplinary approach, such as computer science, data science, ethics, and social science. By combining their expertise and perspectives, it becomes possible to develop more equitable algorithms, systematically identify and address biases, and create a fairer digital environment for users and content creators alike.

  1. Michael D. Ekstrand, Mucun Tian, Ion Madrazo Azpiazu, Jennifer D. Ekstrand, Oghenemaro Anuyah, David McNeill, and Maria Soledad Pera, “All The Cool Kids, How Do They Fit In?: Popularity and Demographic Biases in Recommender Evaluation and Effectiveness,” in Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT* ’18), 2018, pp. 172-186.
  2. F. Maxwell Harper and Joseph A. Konstan, “The MovieLens Datasets: History and Context,” ACM Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems (TiiS) 5, no. 4 (2015): 19:1-19:19.
  3. Alexandra Olteanu, Carlos Castillo, Fernando Diaz, and Emre Kıcıman, “Social Data: Biases, Methodological Pitfalls, and Ethical Boundaries,” Frontiers in Big Data 2 (2019): 13.


About the author

Yifei Wang

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Yifei Wang has been focused on applying machine learning to various industries such as finance, dining, and technology. Currently, she is a Senior Machine Learning Engineer at one of the largest tech companies. Prior to this role, she co-founded a start-up focused on transforming post-Covid dining experiences and served as its CTO. Yifei also has extensive experience in applying machine learning techniques to the finance industry. In her free time, she enjoys piano, snowboarding, traveling, and more.

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